In a statement to the Scottish Parliament, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon set out the dates for the lifting of COVID restrictions by law in Scotland. This is part of an intention to “return to a normal way of life.”
This will include removing the law to wear face coverings, although Sturgeon advised that people continue to wear them in shops and on public transport.
The country’s vaccine passport scheme will also end on 28 February 2022. Vaccine passports are currently required when attending large events such as concerts and football matches.
All other rules will end on 21 March 2022. This includes face coverings, rules for businesses on collecting customer details in a Track and Trace system and taking measures to reduce the spread of the virus.
Although never a legal requirement in Scotland, people will still be asked to self-isolate if they test positive for COVID-19. Sturgeon labelled self-isolation "one of the most fundamental public health protections that we have available to us."
Sturgeon said the removal of restrictions was possible because of the vaccination programme and better treatments, which have reduced direct harms of the virus.
However, she was clear that the removal of restrictions “should not be taken as a signal that COVID no longer presents any risk to health."
She said, "Even though certain measures, for example face coverings, may not be legal requirements in future, we will still recommend voluntary compliance as part of the range of behaviours that will help keep us safe as we manage COVID in a more sustainable and less restrictive way."
Testing will remain part of managing the virus, but Sturgeon has announced this will be part of a “more targeted system” focusing on settings with vulnerable people, such as care homes and hospitals.
MSPs will be given the chance to debate and vote on the government's new proposals for managing the virus.
These will see Scotland operate a three-level system for future outbreaks of the virus — of low, medium and high risk. Rules may come back into place depending on how high risk a region is.
She said that in a high-risk scenario, where a new variant emerged which could evade vaccines or natural immunity, people could be advised to limit social contacts and work from home, with "some temporary protections" introduced by the government.
Meanwhile in a medium-risk scenario, for example in the event of a variant similar to Omicron which is more transmissible but less severe, Sturgeon said face mask laws could be reintroduced.
Such a system was met with criticism from Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives. He said, "If it is no longer necessary or justifiable to keep restrictions in place, why is it necessary or justifiable for the government to cling on to control over those powers and keep the threat of restrictions hanging over the public?"
Sturgeon responded by saying the government needed to have "contingency measures" for use in future as it is highly likely the country would face a threat from new variants of COVID-19 in future.
Scottish Labour Deputy Leader Jackie Baillie urged the First Minister to commit to the ongoing funding of testing as well as contact tracing “to protect the people of Scotland.”
Sturgeon emphasised that lateral flow tests will remain free of charge during the transition phase.
She said, "Indeed, we consider it important – in line with the principle of healthcare free at the point of use – that they should remain free of charge for any circumstance in which the government recommends testing.
“This is a principle we will seek to uphold in our longer-term plan.”
The changes come after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that England’s restrictions will be lifted on Thursday, with the requirement to self-isolate removed and free mass testing to end in April.
At the University of St Andrews, around 90% of teaching hours are due to be delivered in person after the mid-semester break. Classes of over 155 students and smaller-sized classes will continue to be delivered in an online format. Recordings of lectures will still be made available to those not able to attend in-person classes. Current regulations regarding masks are still to be observed until 21 March.
In an email to the student body, the Proctor’s Office said, “We appreciate that many members of our community will welcome the removal of legal restrictions, while some others, including those with pre-existing health conditions, will feel more anxious about this, and the return to more in-person activities. We again encourage you all to treat each other with consideration, respect and compassion. Our teaching settings allow for 1m voluntary distancing wherever possible, so for the remainder of this semester at least, please respect the fact that some people may need or prefer more space and distance than others.”
Image: Gerd Altmann